Saturday, February 28, 2009

Future power costs

It is impossible to determine the cost of commercial LFTRs with a high degree of certainty, although it is reasonable to assume that LFTR costs would be lower than LWR costs. LFTR costs are impossible to determine for a variety of reasons. First there are numerous design options, and each design has its own rationale and cost considerations. In addition to design options there are material options. Transportability would be an important consideration, but there may be important transportability options. For example, suppose that the largest truck transportable LFTR would produce 100 MWe, but for an added 25% of the cost of the smaller reactor, it would be possible to build a 400 MWe reactor. Further more the larger reactor although not transportable by truck is transportable by train and barge, and can be transported to 95% of the proposed sites. Most of the customers would prefer the larger reactor if it were available. The decision between the two options is clear and easy to make. Other choices might prove more difficult. Size might effect transportability, but that problem could still be solved. Function might point to design decisions. For example a reactor intended to provide summer peak power, might be built of less radiation resistant materials on the grounds that it will be used only 25% of the time, and thus parts would have a much smaller radiation exposure.

It is clear then that decisions about reactor function, materials, and design are made, no realistic assessment of cost would be possible. What can be asserted is that there is a considerable potential for producing lower cost nuclear power with multiple areas in which cost lowering is possible. These potential areas of cost savings would include lower manufacturing labor input per KW of power capacity, relatively simplicity of design, fewer parts, simplified assembly, shorter manufacturing time, simpler and lower cost housing, The potential to recycle old power plant facilities and grid hookups, faster building time, smaller capital risk, and lower financing cost. It would be impossible to quantify these savings, in any meaningful way, but the potential exists for the production of LFTRs at a cost that is significantly less than the cost of LWRs.

One further area of cost ought to be mentioned, and that is the cost of compliance with NRC regulations. The NRC or a successor agency would license LFTRs for construction.

We would have to know a great deal more about costs, before we can begin to pin down the costs of the LFTR. It should be noted however that it is not possible yet to estimate the cost of new conventional nuclear plants with any precision. At presence estimated cost ranges for plants to be completed in the middle of the next decade run from $4 to $8 billion per GW. It should be expected that cost estimates for a new technology would be far more inaccurate than cost estimates for a mature technology.

Nor is easier to project the price of renewables into the future. Indeed the current price of renewables power generating projects is not easy to find. One wind industry source suggested:
The costs for a commercial scale wind turbine in 2007 ranged from $1.2 million to $2.6 million, per MW of nameplate capacity installed.
This estimate should be considered outdated because the cost of many 2008 wind projects exceed this range. No industry source has estimated the 2008 cost range for wind turbines. I noted a range of reported costs for eight North American onshore wind projects of between $2200 and $3400 per KW of name plate capacity. Because these cannot be considered more than random cost estimates, and the sample was to small and arbitrary to be considered draw any conclusions from about 2008 prices, it is consistent with there having been a considerable cost increase for wing projects in 2008. The price of construction materials dropped dramatically during the second half of 2008. Whether this would have any impact on the cost of wind projects is still unknown. Thus it is impossible to determine current price for wind projects in the United States from sources available on the Internet. How much more then is the cost of future wind projects uncertain. It should be noted that we are here discussing the cost of wind projects without energy storage. Adding the price of energy storage undoubtedly will increase wind costs, but if anything adds a considerably greater measure of uncertainty to future costs.

If the future cost of wind projects is uncertain at best, it would be at least as difficult to project the cost of solar generation projects into the future. Although solar advocates repeatedly suggest that dramatically lower prices for new solar generation capacity is in the offing, this has yet to be observed in reported prices of actual solar generation projects. Still less has it been offered in projects with the energy storage required to make solar generated electricity reliable.

I have elsewhere in Nuclear Green offered prices estimates based on current wind costs with storage in order to suggests that the future cost of nuclear power most likely would be lower rather than higher than the cost of reliable renewable generated electricity.

My conclusion then is hat it is probable but not certain that the capital costs of conventional nuclear generation capacity will be lower than the capital cost of reliable renewable generation facilities. Further I have argued that the capital costs of LFTR based generation facilities will probably be lower than the cost of conventional nuclear generation capacity. I realize that these conclusions will be controversial, and I invite further research on the question.

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